First, a confession: I used to think that Denis Villeneuve embodied everything that was wrong about Quebec cinema in the 1990s: film school pretentiousness, masturbatory stylistic flourishes, pseudo-profound hogwash…

Having talked to Villeneuve a couple of times these past few years, I learned that he agreed that he needed to stop showing off and to focus more on characters and emotion. He’s achieved that and then some with “Polytechnique”, notably by working with screenwriter Jacques Davidts, not to mention the most important contributor to the raw power of the the film: History.

For as you probably know already, Villeneuve’s third feature is inspired by the massacre that occurred on December 6th, 1989, at Montréal’s École Polytechnique, where 14 people lost their lives… all of them young women. It was an act of madness, it was an act of violent misogyny, it was an act of war… It was all of that and 20 years later, we are still feeling the aftershocks.

So needless to say, “Polytechnique” is a punishing watch. Almost from beginning to end, we’re filled with dread and, I must say, a morbid sense of anticipation, which Villeneuve plays with by fracturing the chronology and switching between different points of view so that the scenes of horror are spread throughout the film, never giving us a chance to catch our breath. I’m sure Jacques Rivette and Mike D’Angelo would have harsh things to say about the way real-life tragedy becomes fodder for taut storytelling here, and I myself sometimes felt uneasy about that, but I believe that the picture ultimately avoids being exploitation.

Another thing some might lament is how many similarities there are between “Polytechnique” and “Elephant”. Personally, I didn’t even care for that one in the first place, and in any case, Villeneuve outdoes Gus Van Sant here. By paying more attention to the killer (Maxim Gaudette) even though he remains a mysterious, incomprehensible figure, and by introducing characters that aren’t just ciphers, even though they’re quickly drawn – the fact that instead of non-professionals like in Van Sant’s film, Villeneuve cast resourceful actors who are able to convey tons just through the look in their eyes and their body language certainly helped in that regard.

Sébastien Huberdeau‘s performance in particular is note-perfect and immensely moving. Karine Vanasse is very good as well, but she’s at the centre of two truly misguided sequences (the job interview and the finale) which make things too obvious and slanted, whereas the rest of the film had the good sense of being thought-provoking without telling us what to think. But that last voice-over? It almost single-handedly keeps this very good film from being a great one.

That being said, the positives clearly outnumber the negatives in “Polytechnique”, especially considering that I’ve yet to mention the stunning B&W cinematography and the brilliant use of sound (and silence). All is forgiven, Denis.